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How to Get Along in Space

NASA has started a new training program to help space station residents fight off cabin fever.

Of the astronauts who have not gone through the training, some are skeptical. “It’s a solution in search of a problem,” says one, not wanting to be identified. Others say Cold Lake is the “in thing” to do to curry favors with Johnson Space Center officials who decide on flight assignments.

Patricia Santy, a former NASA flight surgeon and author of Choosing the Right Stuff: The Psychological Selection of Astronauts and Cosmonauts, thinks the training is merely a token gesture. “I’m glad that they’re finally doing this,” she says, “but I suspect it’s just this superficial attempt to allay any public criticism by showing [NASA] has some psychological stuff.”

Some of the psychosocial problems observed during the Mir missions may not resurface during the ISS missions. With 16 nations participating in the ISS program, Kanas predicts life will be easier than it was on Mir because minority cultures can band together—for example, one American and one Japanese against two Russians. “If you have a lot of people from different backgrounds,” the psychiatrist says, “in a way that might make it easier for people not to feel left out.”

In addition, Americans will probably feel less alone: English will be one of the major languages spoken on the ISS, and the missions—the early ones at least—will include either a U.S. commander or two U.S. subordinates. And because later missions will have larger crews, the interpersonal dynamics on the ISS may work better than those on Mir. Kanas says it’s a well-established finding of social psychology that of groups numbering between two and 11, larger groups tend to do better than smaller ones, and odd-numbered groups tend to do better than even-numbered ones. If you have larger groups, people always can find some kind of an ally so they won’t feel isolated. And if you have an odd number, people can get a consensus by voting.

For the ISS missions, Kanas and his team will look at the cultural sophistication and foreign language skills of each crew member in order to learn whether these factors affect group performance. Says Kanas: “We’ve been getting into ethnic food that they might like, we’re looking at their ability to be fluent in a language versus just speak it enough to get by, we’re looking for interest in dance of other countries—a number of factors that will hopefully tell us how tolerant each crew member is.”

During the ISS missions, both astronauts and mission control will be asked to assess the spacefarers’ moods and their group dynamics on a weekly basis, and to keep an incident log. Like the Mir-shuttle study, the ISS study will look for evidence of displacement, and for any changes in tension, cohesion, and leadership that occur between the first half of the mission and the second.

In the International Space Station era and beyond, astronauts will need to possess a different kind of Right Stuff. NASA will continue to need pilots who can keep their cool in the face of danger, but it will also need people who are emotionally and socially equipped to endure the tribulations of long-term space missions.

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